Treme season 2 review

*** WARNING: Contains spoilers for season 2 ***

The second season of David Simon (creator of The Wire) and Eric Overmyer‘s series centred on post-Katrina New Orleans concluded its UK run on Sky Atlantic on Friday night. The extended finale continued its underlying themes of renewal and recovery as the city and its citizens continue their struggle to restore normality more than a year after the devastating hurricane.

Moving on

Season two picks up 14 months after Katrina, with the various characters continuing to move on with their lives, some in the city, others beyond. Although Treme has often been criticised for its lugubrious pace – which somehow seems fitting given the snail-like pace of the city’s recovery – there is always a sense that its characters are in a constant state of flux. The people we became familiar with over the course of the ten-episode first season had all changed significantly by its end, and the same is true of this second run. While it is true that a number of episodes seem to pass by with precious little happening, by the finale each individual has completed a satisfying arc, with no single storyline dominating. It is this lack of a strong central narrative which lends weight to the series’ critics, and yet also underlines one of its key strengths: that this is a true ensemble show.

As in the opening season, most of the plotlines remain independent of one another, only interacting with each other in the most tangential fashion. And yet every story is loosely interconnected via a gossamer-thin thread of relationships and interests which lend a certain reality to proceedings. Treme has never been a series which spoon-feeds its audience with chance encounters or heavy-handed coincidental themes.

With the obvious exception of the now-dead Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), all the season one principals return, with some new additions in Lieutenant Terry Colson (David Morse), who is promoted to series regular, and new arrival Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), an opportunistic property dealer.

Over the course of eleven episodes we see each character embark on their own personal journeys. Some end up in a very different place to which they started, while others come full circle and end up back at square one.

Key storylines

The latter is very much the case for the itinerant and endlessly optimistic Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who repeats the pattern of starting and ultimately finishing back at a local radio station as a DJ over the course of the season. In between he embarks on his own music career, forming a band and setting up his own record label with his aunt. However, he eventually becomes marginalised on both fronts, and ends the season back where he started, filling in for one of his former colleagues on the radio.

Davis’ girlfriend, the violinist Annie Tallarico (Lucia Micarelli), arguably undergoes greater personal change than any other character this year. Having started out busking in the French Quarter, she is taken under the wing of Harley Watt (Steve Earle) who gives her the confidence to develop as a singer-songwriter herself. However, her world is torn apart when Harley is shot and killed at her side after a late-night mugging.

Annie’s ex-boyfriend Sonny (Michiel Huisman) starts the season heading down a self-destructive path, but manages to pick up part-time gigs with Antione Batiste‘s (Wendell Pierce) newly formed band, the Soul Apostles. He eventually gains regular employment on a fishing boat, where he falls for a Vietnamese girl who allows him to finally move on from Annie.

For Creighton’s widow Toni (Melissa Leo) and daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) it is also a case of moving on after his suicide, but the pair spend most of the season drifting apart. Sofia is confused and angry, rebelling and threatening to go off the rails completely because she cannot understand how the father she loved could have done something so unforgivable. Finally the fall of a local councilman with whom she had been interning allows her to find catharsis and begin the process of reconciliation with her mother.

Meanwhile Toni spends the season pursuing a disturbing case in which the police appear to have covered up the shooting of a young man by one of their own. She enlists the help of Terry Colson, with whom a blossoming romance is slowly developing, to investigate further. She coerces him into going behind his superior’s back after he is moved to homicide, only to discover that even the FBI are unwilling to look into what turns out to be a more far-reaching corruption. It is a move which sees Terry dumped unceremoniously back into uniform and drives a wedge between the two of them as he discovers the cost of trying to be an honest cop under a Republican administration unwilling to open up any damaging civil rights cases which would publicise the city’s woes and crookedness.

As for Antoine, he is cajoled into taking a job as an assistant band leader at a local school to secure a regular income. But the reality of running his own band eventually leaves him disillusioned, and he discovers a new passion mentoring his school students to help them form a band of their own. The season ends on another positive note for him, as his family finally move back into their own home.

Other characters also come home simply by returning to the city. Antonie’s ex-wife LaDonna Williams (Khandi Alexander) has the season’s most traumatic storyline, as she is raped in her own bar. She struggles to come to terms with her ordeal and looks a beaten woman as she decides to sell the bar which had been in her family for generations and relocate permanently with the rest of her family in Baton Rouge. However, a chance encounter with one of her tormentors brings back the old, sparky LaDonna, to the delight of her husband Larry (Lance E Nichols), who insists that the entire family returns to New Orleans with her.

Also returning to New Orleans at the end of the season are New York-based trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) and chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens). Delmond returns to help his father Albert (Clarke Peters) rebuild his house after providing the money required to fund needed repairs in the guise of a royalty cheque against an album he had persuaded him to help record. Janette, who had fled New Orleans for the Big Apple after giving up on her restaurant, receives financial backing to open a new restaurant, but not before she has slept with her former sous-chef Jacques Vaz (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who she helped to save from deportation.

New cast member Nelson Hidalgo provides the eyes and ears for the new viewer as he arrives from Dallas looking to make connections and money in real estate. He immerses himself in both the city’s unique ways of getting things done and its equally distinctive music and culture. Nelson discovers that it requires more than the traditional greasing of local politicians’ palms to make things happen in New Orleans, even ‘masking up’ at a carnival to get influential locals on-side, but ends up black-balled because of his connections to the indicted councilman.

Amidst all the change that the characters – and to a lesser extent the city itself – undergo during the course of the season, the one constant in Treme is the music. Each episode contains several minutes of music performances – sometimes integral to the plot, at other times an indulgent luxury – but even though I am no jazz fan myself it is nonetheless an integral part of the series. The music is, in effect, an uncredited character in its own right, and forms a crucial part of the series’ unique flavour. Many US TV dramas take place in faceless metropolitan cities, with only interspersed establishing shots of landmarks to remind the viewer that the action is taking place in New York or Los Angeles or, say, Chicago. There is, however, no mistaking where Treme is set. It is a unique series set in a unique city. As Davis McAlary himself says in his closing monologue in the season finale:

We’re all still here, ain’t we? A few more home every day. And even if it isn’t as it should be, even if they make it hard, where else would we go? Who else would have us?

What else contributes to the series’ unique flavour? Certainly the pacing and structure of Treme‘s stories are unusual insofar that they lack the traditional structure of a serialised drama. There is no clear beginning, middle or end to each episode, and none of the customary peaks that viewers are used to seeing on either side of an act break. The series has an organic, almost documentary feel to it. Stuff happens – some of it is significant, while others are little more than interesting minutiae – people react and they move on. In such respects it feels less tightly orchestrated, more spontaneous and somehow more real as a result. Even the finale, with its common theme of every character either returning home or finding a new one of some sort, feels less conclusive than a traditional season finale and more like the closing of a chapter than the end of a book. Either way, it has proven to be an extremely satisfying story so far.

Where next?

Some clear narrative threads have already been set up for season three. Davis’ restless feet will no doubt catapult him into a new set of experiences. His ex-girlfriend Janette faces the battle to start over in the New Orleans restaurant trade, while his current love Annie continues in the fledgling stages of her musical career. The repercussions of the stifled Abreu investigation will continue to affect Toni and Terry both personally and professionally. Nelson faces a battle to re-establish himself in the city’s burgeoning real estate dealings. But for many of the characters, a new season will see them spinning off in all kinds of unpredictable directions, part of the ever-changing tapestry of a show which drives its protagonists through a wider spectrum of experiences than any other drama. In that respect, a series which prides itself on portraying New Orleans’ various facets – political, social and personal, whether positive or negative – in a realistic way also succeeds in portraying its characters’ lives undergoing dramatic changes in a way that also echoes real life.

David Simon was recently quoted as saying that he would like Treme to end after its fourth season, at which point his tale will have reached its natural conclusion. I think that’s a wise move. There is only so much political and social commentary the series can make before it becomes stale, and there is surely a natural end-point that will be reached when the series’ chronology matches the time when the majority of the post-Katrina recovery was completed. At that point it will be time for one final encore before it is time to turn the lights out, but Treme still has many interesting songs to sing before then. For now, it remains a minor treasure buried away late in Sky Atlantic’s Friday night schedule. Watch it and immerse yourself in the tales emanating from one of the most unique and fascinating cities on Earth.

Rating: 8/10

Links: IMDb, TV.com, Wikipedia, Season 1 review, Classic TV intros: Treme